Lord Nikolich of Rudna was a knight of the Golden Fleece, rector of the Serbian schools in Osek and a court judge in the Torontal and Srem bishopric. During the war with the French and Turks, he gave the Austrian Empire interest-free loans, and for the sum of 52,028 forints bought the Rudna wasteland. In private life, Nikolich was a sensitive man - who got drunk as soon as he saw a glass and grew fat at the thought of more than two dishes on the table. He had no male heirs, but one daughter by the name of Attilia, whom he sent to school as though she were a boy. It is worth mentioning that Attilia's maternal grandfather had been the famous pedagogue Miriewsky, an educational reformer in Austria and Russia.
The young Miss Nikolich flew into her fifteenth year with a copy of Orfelin's Eternal Calendar under her arm and the impression that time was at a standstill. She liked watching birds flying through a snowstorm, had spotted eyes and breasts like snakes' eggs, and had already learned to slip a ring onto her left hand in no time at all without using her right. She wore dresses in the Viennese style, high-waisted and strewn with tiny embroidered herbs, while her bosom, according to the current fashion, was covered with only a transparent veil, so that her two fly-like nipples were quite visible.
- How stupid those two hens are. They always need a cock to wake them up - she would remark in surprise, as if seeing them for the first time. Then she would fasten her sharp spotted eyes upon her father.
- It's no great pity you dismissed Shuvakovich. It's only a pity you did so ahead of time. Come over to this window. What do you see? A forest, naturally. And what did I say should be seen through this window? The palace in which I am to live when I marry. Now come and look through this other window. Tell me, what do you see?
On the veil covering Attilia's breasts two small embroidered butterflies seemed to flutter. Between them, on a golden chain, hung a valuable gift from her father - a Geneva watch dotted with jewels and with a compass on the back.
- You see nothing - Attilia continued to berate her father - and I told you, didn't I, what ought to be seen through this window? The church in which I am to be married. And where is Shuvakovich now? Fired! It seems I have to finish all your jobs for you. Go off and send Yagoda to me.
And so it was that Yagoda, the coachman, was ordered by Miss Attilia to find a better builder than the banished Shuvakovich.
- Go and find me a better John among all those other Johns - she commanded him and Yagoda, as always, silently obeyed.
When he entered the service of the Nikolich family, the first lesson Yagoda learned was to hold his tongue. This was achieved by making him spend one day with his mouth full of water, and the next with his mouth full of plum brandy, and so on for a whole week.
- One is speechless differently with a mouth full of brandy than with a mouth full of water - observed the master of the house.
One of the 800 builders who had crossed the river from Osat was working in the neighborhood. As soon as Yagoda brought him over, the young Miss Nikolich asked him who was the greatest builder among the Johns.
- Is it the one who worked for the Stratimiroviches?
- No - came the answer - There are two who are the best. One is called John the Damascene, named after John of Damascus, who built in men's hearts. That is why he is called Damascene. The other is John the Ladder, named after the holy father who built ladders to the sky. Damascene puts up the handsomest houses, while the other is best at erecting churches.
- Bring them both to me! - ordered Nikolich. - One shall build a palace for my daughter, and the other shall build the church in which she is to be wed.
The following Wednesday, Yagoda brought both Johns to lunch at the Nikolich house. They were sat down in the dining-room and before them were put plates of 'cheeky paprika stew' and prunes that had been dried in pipe tobacco. The prunes smelled pleasantly of the tobacco. With the meal they were given a sealed bottle of absinthe wine from Fenek Monastery. Over lunch they agreed to bring drawings to Lord Nikolich within a month - the elder John for the church, and the younger John, the one they called "Damascene," for the palace.
- I pay each year in advance, but everything must be finished at the same time - said Nikolich - The church is worth nothing without the palace, and the palace is of no use without the church. They must both be finished on time. And that time is the wedding.... Now, Attilia already has a fiancé. He is Lieutenant Alexander, a fine-lookin young gentleman from a good family. His father was a general in the pay of the Russians, but they are our people. At present he is in the service of some prelate in Upper Austria.
One of the builders was an old, frightened little man with short arms, who so feared to speak that his lips burst like a fish bubble when he was called upon to utter something. When he realised that he was being asked to put up a church for the wedding of the young Miss Nikolich, he inquired anxiously how old she was.
- She still plays word games with other children - said Nikolich to soothe him - She has just entered her fifteenth year.
The old man frowned at these words and started some quick calculations, writing on the palm of his hand. The other, younger builder did not even say that much. Only when Nikolich mentioned that the church and the palace were to be erected next to the existing house did Damascene wave his forefinger from left to right in a sign of disagreement. We will build at the place where only one wind blows - was the old masterbuilder John's explanation of Damascene's gesture.
Damascene was handsome and left-handed, with strong calves and a firm black beard fastened into a tail with a gold clasp. Round each wrist he wore a white scarf, such as swordsmen wear. When swordsmen attacked with saber or knife, their scarves would unfurl and blind their opponents who would then not know where their attackers' blades were and from which direction they could expect a thrust. But the young Damascene was carrying neither saber nor knife. He had left them in the entrance hall, though he constantly looked around him in fearful apprehension. He barely uttered a word the whole time, but his hands were never still. At lunch he had fashioned a boat out of a bread-crust and a pipe-cleaner and presented it to their young hostess who joined them after the meal.
To her father's consternation and the utter bewilderment of their guests, Attilia had used this visit to paint eyes with eyelashes on her little breasts. Rather too wide-set, but compelling with their bright green irises, the eyes had fixed upon each guest at the same time through the covering veil. It was in this atmosphere of embarrassed confusion that Damascene spoke for the first time, handing the boat to Attilia.
- This is for you, pretty miss - he said, to which she responded:
- If you want to be sure whether a woman is pretty or not, you must wait to see her smile, yawn or speak. And you certainly won't know if she's pretty until she sits down to eat in front of you. That's why I don't like it when people watch me eating. My borzoi doesn't like it either....
Then she took the little boat, went up to the pipe-stand, selected a long-stemmed pipe, already filled with tobacco, and held it out to Damascene.
- The tobacco has been stored in prunes and has a little of their smell - she said. Damascene put out his hand for the pipe, but Attilia did not let go of it. Instead, she turned slowly and pulled him on the other end of the long pipe-stem into the music-room.
They found themselves in a large room with open windows. As soon as they were inside, an enormous hound threw itself at Damascene, but fortunately it was still tied to a well-bitten leather cushion. Attilia swiftly went up to a piano and strummed a chord. At this the dog calmed down and curled up on the cushion. The piano stood in the middle of the room like a huge lacquered carriage with two coach-lamps. It had half-chewed legs and large black keys. The small white keys were made of ivory. Attilia sat down and began to play. Her playing made the room reverberate and the sounds mixed together rising to unimaginable heights, after which they drummed downwards towards the floor. Damascene applauded, the hound started to whine again, and Attilia suddenly broke off:
- Do you really think that I am playing this? - she said mockingly to Damascene - Not for a moment! I use these sounds to water the flowers in the garden under the window. They grow better that way.... There are songs the flowers particularly like. Just as we have our favorite songs. Then there are others, rarely heard and very precious, which love us in their turn. Some of these songs we have never heard, nor will we ever hear them, for there are far more songs in the world that love us than those that we ourselves love. It's the same with books, paintings, or houses. Really, what can we say about houses? Quite simply, some houses have the gift of loving us, and others don't. Houses are actually a permanent correspondence between their builders and the people who live in them. People's houses are like big, beautiful or ugly letters. Life in them can resemble business correspondence, letters between two enemies, full of hate, letters between master and servant, between prisoner and jailer, or ... love letters. For houses have a sex, just like us. Some houses are female, others are male. And that's the whole point. So, I want you to build me a house that's like a love letter. I know it is not given to everyone to kindle the fire of love. Some are not able to. But you can. I know you can.
And just how do you know that, young miss? - asked Damascene and hung a prune-scented smoke ring on the muzzle of the hound, who sneezed.
- How do I know? Well, just you listen, young sir! I first started to think when I was six. Those thoughts were strong and real, like ropes. They were so long they stretched to Thessalonica and so taut they kept my ears pinned against my head. And with them came rich fantasies and feelings. And there was so much whirling round in my head that I was forced to forget much of it. I forgot, not pounds and kilograms, but tons, every day. It was then I realised that I could have children, that I would have children. And I set to work at once to practise. That same day - it was a Thursday afternoon - I gave birth in my thoughts to a little boy of three and I began to tend to him and love him.
Love is something that can be learned and practised, you know. Love is also something you must steal. If you don't steal from yourself a little strength and time for love each day, there will be no love. I breastfeed my small son in my dreams and I notice he has a scar on his forearm like a closed eye. I wash his hair in wine, and in my imagination I kiss his ear until it's fit to burst, so that he'll remember me. I play word games with him, I show him how my compass works, and together we run backwards beside some pretty stretch of water or we build sandcastles on the banks of the Tisa.... He grows faster than I do and I see him looking older than me already. In my thoughts, I send him to school, first to Karlovtsi to the Serbian Latin school, then to Vienna to the military engineering academy to become a skilled constructor and build the finest houses.... I haven't seen him since that time, and I loved him very much. I picture him today, somewhere out there in the wide world and I long for him. For my child....
- That's a nice story, Miss Attilia, but what about the answer to my question? Where is your house in all this, and where do I fit in? Is your one-time imaginary child to build this palace for you?
- Yes - replied Attilia, moving away from the piano. With a sudden movement, she turned back the sleeve of Damascene's shirt. There, on his forearm, was a scar resembling a closed eye.
Proceed to the First Fork